While it is tempting to equate all kinds of abuse as pretty much the same, narcissistic abuse has a few characteristics outside the boundaries of emotional abuse. Obviously narcissistic abusers are emotionally abusive, but the goals of a narcissist are significantly different from those of a person who is emotionally abusive. Knowing the difference is helpful. Narcissistic abuse requires a different approach to recovery, though the healing path from any kind of abuse is difficult.
Emotional abuse is a matter of degree. After all, we all are abusive at times. We lose our tempers, withhold affection, call names, criticize, and take our bad moods out on others.
With normal maturational processes, we learn to use our words, become emotionally vulnerable, and maintain emotional intimacy at a steady pace throughout our lives. Or we don’t.
But the truth remains that people merely guilty of emotionally abusive behavior change, as often as not. Narcissists are a different story.
I didn’t fully understand the difference until I came to grips with the fact that my ex-husband wanted to me to quit my teaching job at a local university and go to work at a local factory. It made no actual sense, but he spent hours trying to shame, brainwash, and coerce me into leaving my position. Several years before, he had taken the car away from me on what was to be first day of my new job as an instructor at a community college. I quit that job, too ashamed to admit what happened and not knowing how to navigate the truth of the situation.
Knowing how to tell the difference can be important. If you or someone you love is trapped in an abusive relationship, perhaps realizing the narcissistic tendencies of your SO will give you the courage to leave. Here are some of the key differences between the two kinds of abuse:
- A narcissist does not change. Emotional abuse is most often perpetuated by people who are immature, who suffer from a mood disorder, or have a serious lack of nurture in their lives. As such, change can and often does occur, if people with abusive tendencies seek help. Narcissistic Personality Disorder is another animal altogether. As a psychologist friend of mine once told me, “People with narcissistic personality disorder can change if they try. However, I’ve worked with many and have yet to see it happen. Neither have any of my colleagues.” Research generally agrees with this assessment.
- The goal of a narcissist is to consume his victim. That sound so ugly, but it is true. Because a narcissist cannot experience love on their own, they must harvest it from others. The way that they do this is to disconnect their victims from all loved ones, sowing mistrust. Then they keep the victim in a perpetual state of self-doubt and confusion. This is done purposely in order to keep their victim tied to them, serving their needs continuously.
- A narcissist cannot love. Incapable of love, they actually enjoy causing pain. A narcissistic abuser feels no remorse and no emotion. They will argue for as long as it takes to prove their point that their victim is at terrible fault for a minor infraction because it messes with the mind of their victim. Victory is getting their victim to apologize for an infraction that does not exist. Incapable of much emotion themselves, they produce both good and bad emotions in others in order to live vicariously through their victims. Sound like a vampire? Vampires serve as a great metaphor for the narcissistic abuser. They feed on others while trying to make it look sexy or adventurous. The end is always destruction for the victim.
- Healthy boundaries do not exist for a narcissist. I remember my mother asking why I could not discuss things with my ex. After all, she and my father spend their lives talking things out. But any show of emotion or resistance on my part meant further exploitation on his part. I can’t believe to this day how far I was willing to go to appease him. I spoke in a monotone for years because he accused me of being dramatic. A typical abuser will resent and push on any healthy boundaries. A narcissistic abuser will begin an unceasing campaign until all that is left of a healthy boundary is guilt on the part of the victim for having “sinned” against the abuser.
- A narcissist will seek out strong, intelligent victims. If mere control were the goal, a narcissistic abuser would look for easier prey. The stronger personality would prevail, as it often does, and that would be the end of that. But narcissistic abusers, because of their need to look good in front of others, and because they gain a thrill from conflict, look for victims that one would not normally associate with being a victim. In a way, it adds to their sense of consequence. They want to conquer someone challenging rather than merely convenient. This works in their favor. People looked at my competent exterior and could not believe the stories I tried to tell them. I didn’t look like what a victim was supposed to look like. Therefore, how could I be one?
In the end, the only real difference between a person with Narcissistic Personality Disorder and one who is a sociopath is the length to which they are willing to go. A sociopath is far more likely to inflict grievous bodily harm or other crimes in order to gain what they want. Sociopaths are willing to sacrifice their reputations in order to gain what they want. A narcissist exist s for the purpose of looking good to the outside world. A narcissist rarely commits actual crimes because they do not want to face the consequences.
When I faced the truth of my situation, I had to acknowledge the hopelessness of it. It felt like failure. Years of relearning how to tell the truth to myself gives me the ability to tell the truth of my story to others, in hopes that they will understand how to navigate successfully out of similar situations in relationship with a narcissist earlier than I did. Perhaps the best description of the narcissist comes from 2 Titus 3: 1-9.
For men shall be lovers of their own selves, covetous, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy, Without natural affection, trucebreakers, false accusers, incontinent, fierce, despisers of those that are good, Traitors, heady, high-minded, lovers of pleasures more than lovers of God; Having a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof: from such turn away. For of this sort are they which creep into houses, and lead captive silly women laden with sins, led away with divers lusts, Ever learning, and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth. Now as Jannes and Jambres withstood Moses, so do these also resist the truth: men of corrupt minds, reprobate concerning the faith.
From such turn away… Unfortunately, this is the only solution to narcissistic abusers. Don’t throw your precious life away on someone who cannot love you.